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China is now implementing a more aggressive “Launch on Warning” nuclear weapons posture which could authorize the use of nuclear weapons as a counterstrike before an incoming first strike attack can detonate, a Pentagon report on China says.
Launch on Warning
The Launch on Warning posture, called “early warning counterstrike” by the Pentagon’s annual report on the Chinese military, could lower the threshold of possibility when it comes to the likelihood of contemplating the actual use of a nuclear weapon.
“PLA writings suggest multiple manned C2 (Command and Control) organs are involved in this process, warned by space and ground based sensors, and that this posture is broadly similar to the U.S. and Russian LOW posture,” DoD’s 2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China” states.
The Pentagon report goes on to speculate that China likely plans to keep a certain segment of its nuclear arsenal on a LOW posture.
“Since 2017, the PLARF has conducted exercises involving early warning of a nuclear strike and launch on warning responses,” the Pentagon China report explains.
China’s LOW posture speaks to an ongoing and serious debate within the U.S. about dual-use weapons that are both conventional and nuclear-capable. The principle concern with this emerges from a concern that a conventional strike could all too easily be misinterpreted as a nuclear attack, thus prompting a catastrophic nuclear weapons engagement.
Long Range Hypersonic Weapons
The possibility of confusing misinterpreting a cruise missile or hypersonic weapons attack for a nuclear strike is a key reason why some lawmakers have opposed the development of the Air Force’s dual-use, nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missile called the Long Range StandOff weapon.
Similar concerns are being raised about now-in-development dual-use U.S. long-range hypersonic weapons as well, meaning they could travel so quickly in a conventional strike such that they could all too easily be mistaken for a nuclear attack.
This question is likely of relevance to several now-emerging U.S. hypersonics weapons programs intended to incorporate dual-use potential such as the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike weapon and the Army’s Long Range Hypersonic Weapon to arrive by 2023.
Clearly put, a Launch on Warning posture could mean that a large-scale nuclear counterattack could be launched before it is clearly established that an approaching threat is actually conventional and therefore not worthy of a nuclear response.
Should both nuclear or conventional attack possibilities exist within a single weapons system, how will sensors and ground radar be able to discern the actual specifics of a threat?
Escalate to De-escalate
“The PRC has also made advances in early warning needed to support a LOW posture. China already has several ground-based large phase array radars – similar in appearance to U.S. PAVE PAWS radars – that could support a missile early warning role,” the Pentagon report states.
Could China be moving much closer to mirroring Russia’s well known “escalate to de-escalate” nuclear strategy? Perhaps, but perhaps the Chinese leadership is simply attempting to provoke U.S. weapons developers with a hope that they might curb or influence the U.S. development of dual-use weapons.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.